John Thompson used to be a friend of Robert Pondiscio, who is now a vice-president at the rightwing Thomas B. Fordham Institute. A decade ago, Robert was a good friend of mine; he was one of the early readers of Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education. At the time (2010), Robert and I agreed on the importance of public schools and the irrelevance of charters. I recall the publication party at the home of then-NYC Public Advocate Betsy Gotbaum, where I told Robert how much I appreciated his help and his ideas, which were consonant with mine. I saw him as a professional ally. But since then, Robert has changed his views (as I changed mine in 2008-2010). I never criticize anyone for changing their views, even when I disagree with them.

John Thompson often posts here about what is happening in Oklahoma, where he was a teacher for many years. He also has useful insights on national topics, and I welcome his contributions to our discussion about providing “better education for all,” not just for the strivers or the gifted. The discussion below bears on an extended exchange that I had recently with a Wall Street guy, who has given six-figure donations to Success Academy. He insists that Eva Moskowitz has “cracked the code” and knows how to educate all children, if only the powers-that-be would copy her model. He insists that “every child” would have high scores if they all attended Success Academy charters. Pondiscio helpfully debunks that idea, although nothing I was able to say could change the belief of this donor. John makes the point below that many educators were offended by the claim that Success Academy was for all children; Robert explains that the chain cherry-picks the parents, not the students. I doubt many people would object to Eva or her chain if they openly admitted what Robert demonstrates in his book. Eva’s charters are not for all kids.

John Thompson writes:

This isn’t a review of Robert Pondiscio’s How the Other Half Learns but a review of our edu-political culture using the book review process to understand why we still have to fight education “Disruptors.” A decade ago, Robert and I were long-distance friends, continually sharing thoughts on how we should resist corporate reformers like Michelle Rhee and test-driven accountability, while improving schools like Robert’s in the South Bronx and my mid-high, which was the lowest performing secondary school in Oklahoma.

Now I’m trying to make sense of the aftershocks from the reformers’ previous political victories and the education debacles they prompted.

Being a former elementary teacher, Robert focused much more on reading instruction and curriculum. We agreed on the need to bring history, science, arts, and music back into the classroom, while opposing high stakes testing. Robert was more confrontational. He characterized Rhee’s value-added teacher evaluation system, IMPACT, as “pure lunacy,” and coined the phrase, “Erase To The Top.”

Even after we grew apart, Robert wrote, “It’s long past time to acknowledge that reading tests—especially tests with stakes for individual teachers attached to them—do more harm than good.” Moreover, he said, “if your goal is to boost test scores now, you’re incentivizing bad teaching by encouraging a vacuous skills-and-strategies approach to reading, conspiring against patient investment in knowledge and vocabulary, and sacrificing vast amounts of class time for test prep.”

Conversely, I took an embarrassingly long time before realizing that the Billionaires Boys Club wasn’t going to listen to classroom teachers.

I’ve been intrigued by Pondiscio’s recent writings, especially his critiques of the reforms that failed in the ways that we and so many others predicted. “Ed reform circa 2010 was riding a cresting wave, but in retrospect it was the high-water mark,” Pondiscio explained. And, ten years later, most of the reform victory has been “reversed or is in retreat. Big reform is dead.”

Pondiscio’s own review of his book foreshadowed ambivalence, at least in terms of what it would take to improve the highest challenge schools, “Regardless of where you stand on charter schools, choice, ed reform or education at large, you’re going to be disappointed: My book does not support your preferred views or narrative.” He concluded:

We have become overdependent on pleasing or expedient narratives that we know aren’t quite right, and we have become tribal in our devotions to them. It’s going to be painful and unpleasant, but it’s time to let them go.

So that’s my new book [wrote Pondiscio]. I hope you hate it

Fortunately, Gary Rubinstein has already written a definitive review of How the Other Half Learns. His title, “How the Other 1/300 Learn” spoofs the claim, which once was presented with a straight face, that Eva Moskowitz and company show what could have been accomplished had teachers and unions embraced “No Excuses!,” accountability, and competition.

Rubinstein focuses on the narratives that “will be devastating to the reputation of Success Academy,” concluding “if it is true that reformers do really like this book and are not just pretending to then Pondiscio has really accomplished quite a feat.”

Rubinstein stresses Pondiscio’s statements, such as the following, which implicitly explain why Success Academy isn’t scalable. Pondiscio wrote:

“•       The common criticism leveled at Moskowitz and her schools is that they cherry pick students, … This misses the mark entirely. Success Academy is cherry-picking parents.”
“•       Is Success Academy a proof point that the reform playbook works and that professionally run schools with high standards and even higher expectations can set any child on a path out of poverty?  Or does the rarity of Moskowitz’s accomplishment suggest that however nobly intended it might have been, the reform impulse was doomed from the start?
“•       It would be dishonest to pretend that Success Academy is not a self-selection engine that allows engaged families who happen to be poor or of modest means to get the best available education for their children.”

And that third paragraph brings me back to my review of the process of reviewing How the Other Half Learns. The second half of Pondiscio’s paragraph illustrates the two most salient features of his narrative.

Pondiscio then writes:

“It is equally dishonest and close to cruel to deny such families the ability to self-select in the name of “equity.” Indeed, it is nearly perverse to deny low-income families of color — and only those families — the ability to choose schools that allow their children to thrive, advance, and enjoy the full measure of their abilities.”

First, Pondiscio repeatedly pretends that the issue is how to educate the relatively small number of students who have benefited from Moskowitz et al’s charters. This would be valid if her enemies were elite schools that don’t properly serve poor children. But if that was her obsession, as opposed to a scorched earth crusade against traditional public schools, would educators and patrons have felt the need to resist her agenda?

Second, and most importantly for his book, it created another opportunity for Pondiscio to attack the integrity of his opponents as “dishonest and close to cruel,” and “nearly perverse.”

The following are illustrations of the pattern which reoccurs when Pondiscio is citing journalists’ criticisms of Success Academies:

•       Page 259 is a part of perhaps the best reporting in How the Other Half Learns where Pondiscio digs deeper into the exclusionary nature of Success Academy’s admissions lottery. As Rubinstein explains, the truth is even more upsetting than the story Pondiscio recounts. His narrative, however, creates the opportunity for attacking the New York Times’ Kate Taylor for her “armor-piercing articles” that “have frightened prospective parents away.”   

•       On page 53, Pondiscio characterized “no-excuses” as “an optimistic belief that the root cause of educational failure and black-white achievement gaps was adult failures – not poverty …” Two pages later, rather than acknowledge he had just made the argument against the scalability of the reformers’ solutions,  Pondiscio shifts gears and blames educators for “no excuses” going from a “rallying cry to a curse,” after a “sustained attack from political progressives, teachers’ unions, and anti-reform activists,” led by Diane Ravitch, their “Joan of Arc figure.”

•       On page 88, closing the chapter on the hugely important New York Times report on a first grade teacher ripping up a student’s work and “exiling her from the classroom rug,” Pondiscio cites the problem caused by teacher turnover. But, he then explains,  but doesn’t analyze, how Moskowitz suddenly realizes that the problem isn’t overworked and overstressed, inexperienced teachers, but “leadership via BFF.” The problem is that young teacher leaders want to be liked, so they aren’t tough enough!

•       On page 152, Moskowitz acknowledges to charter management organization leaders that she has no idea how to turn around high schools. This previews Success’ failure to run a high school, as well as the admission that “no-excuses” schools haven’t shown much of an ability to produce longterm, life-changing gains. This was an opportunity for Pondiscio to ask for evidence that their behaviorist methods are sustainable, as well as scalable. Instead, he quotes Moskowitz’ description of Success Academy as a “Catholic school on the outside, Bank Street [progressive school] on the inside.” That opens another door to Pondiscio’s attacks on opponents who have “promiscuously used, impressionistically defined” and “fetishized” progressivism.

•       On page 159, just after reporting on the beginning of the high school, Pondiscio seems to inexplicably change the subject to the unsupported claim that “students faced an intense scrutiny from critics.” This weird assertion made sense only after he identified the supposed lead critic – Diane Ravitch, “the longtime ed reform critic and fierce Moskowitz critic.”

•       On 179, Pondiscio addresses the New York Times description of “students in the third grade and above wetting themselves during practice tests.” Pondiscio’s reply is that it is “inaccurate” to blame “’drop everything and test-prep’” because there is “an overtone of test prep” throughout the year!?!?

•       He then changes the subject to the “opt out” movement which is “particularly strident.” And on page 180 Pondiscio seems to defend Success Academy’s test-prep as a part of a new normal which isn’t going away, “”No person in the room … likely ever spent a day in school, as an administrator, a teacher, or even a student, that was not dominated by the imperatives of standardized testing.”

And that, of course, is the real reason why educators across the nation fought back against Moskowitz. As another review of the Other Half by reform-sympathizer Natalie Wexler says, the book’s title is misleading because, “we’re not talking about the other ‘half,’ we’re talking about the other 1%—or less.” Teachers wouldn’t have had to counter-attack if the issue was merely “How the Other One Percent Learns – to Take Tests.”

As Pondiscio used to know, the problem wasn’t just tests; it was the high stakes they were tied to. The problem we fought wasn’t just tests; it’s the teach-to-the-test culture that reform imposed on everyone, whether they chose it or not.  We didn’t resist charters just because we opposed competition; it was the resulting toxic culture of competition. The damage was then multiplied as test scores became the ammunition for this battle for the survival of public schools. The biggest problem wasn’t just the false statements claiming that “no-excuses” charters served the same poor students who attended the highest-poverty schools. It was the well-funded and vicious propaganda campaign using such falsehoods to demonize teachers.

After a decade of failure, corporate reformers have backed off from the “bad teacher” meme. But Pondiscio now exemplifies the quieter ways their anger is revealed. Yes, reformers, we have a problem, he says. Then Pondiscio repeatedly spins and blames the problem on those of us who resisted their failed agenda. His theme is, yes, Success Academy failed its student, Adama. But you defenders of the status quo failed my student, Tiffany, and she might have benefited by being in the 1 percent.

I’m afraid this pattern in his (and his colleagues’) writing shows that Pondiscio is just one of many defeated Disruptors who admit that something went wrong but who habitually change the subject by responding to evidence-based criticism with the children’s defensive meme, “I know you are, but what am I?”

Finally, here’s why I approach Pondiscio’s book as an opportunity for contemplation, not just an education case study. I admit to mistakes rooted in my congenital optimism. I’d thought, however, I’d learned my lesson when realizing why corporate reformers were not about to listen to people who saw the world differently. I belatedly acknowledged that the movement was about more than accountability-driven, competition-driven policy; it was a part of a larger privatization movement. I’m finally understanding how corporate reformers, who couldn’t face facts, became Disruptors.

In contrast to Pondiscio, who also sought more pragmatism among traditional school system leaders, as well as a serious effort to build safe and orderly school cultures, I continued to work within the system. Today, after defeating so many of the worst data-driven experiments, its frustrating when traditional public schools remain terrified that a new Goliath will emerge, again attacking the professional autonomy of educators.

The Disruptors’ politics of destruction may have been beaten back. But Pondiscio illustrates the politics of resentment which remains threatening. How the Other Half Learns provides more evidence how and why their experiment failed. It also personifies their anger, and how they still blame teachers (and Diane Ravitch) for their theories’ defeat.